Rebuilding The Web

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Is Web accessibility a human right?

The Web is now so tightly integrated into our society that it's second nature to obtain employment, access education, do commerce, get information, get entertainment and even build social relationships online. If the Web is now a permanent and integral part of our society, then is denying a group of people access to much of the Web a form of discrimination and a denial of a human right?

If the Web is unusable ...

Who is affected?

People with disabilities are not able to participate in much that is offered on the Web. They are computer users and able to be productive when using desktop applications thanks to various assistive technologies. Yet when it comes to accessing the Web, they encounter barriers not found in general computer usage.

What is happening?

Web sites are rendered inaccessible in many ways, as illustrated by the following examples:

  • Missing alternative content for images is simply missing content if you are a user who is not able to see images
  • Low contrast combinations of colours can make reading impossible for some users
  • Controls (buttons, pop-ups, calendars, etc.) don't work for keyboard users who lack the dexterity to use a mouse
  • Web site functions aren't available if they rely on scripting that does not work with assistive technologies
  • Combinations of factors that make the use of a Web site too frustrating such as ambiguous or missing link texts, incorrect use of headings, poor navigation, semantic markup used for formatting effects, etc.

Why is this happening?

HTML has adequate features to make Web sites accessible. However, these accessibility features are not used or are used incorrectly by the vast majority of Web site creators. Why? Because making Web sites accessible requires Web site creators to perform extra steps. So by skipping these steps, most stakeholders in Web technology (browser vendors, authoring tool vendors, Web site creators, HTML specification authors and others) have made it easier for one group of people to use the Web at the expense of another group.

A hard question

Human rights are basic rights and freedoms to which all of us are entitled. Some of those rights include the right to work, the right to choose where we work, the right to access education, and the right to participate in culture; all of which are rapidly becoming obtainable through one primary source - the Web, which is now an integral part of society and daily life. If one group of people is denied access to much of the Web, that therefore constitutes a denial of those human rights that are exercised via the Web.

If you don't agree that Web accessibility is a human right, then what is it? Is offering accessibility a personal choice that Web site creators make? If we accept that argument, then making accessible Web sites amounts to no more than a charitable act on the part of individuals. Is that really acceptable?

Should all Web sites be accessible?

If Web site accessibility is a human right, then all Web sites should be accessible (with a few exceptions). If Web sites are open to the public then these Web sites must offer equitable access to everyone who uses them. If a Web site is listed in a publicly accessible search engine, directory or advertisement, that site is actively soliciting public visitors, and therefore should offer equitable access to all its visitors.

The few exceptions include Web sites that are by invitation only, which should be exempt from accessibility requirements. And where there is no practical way to offer equivalent functionality using technology that is accessible, then that also would constitute a valid exception.

A right delayed is a right denied

All stakeholders in Web technology have an obligation to make the Web accessible, yet most of them are doing little to progress Web accessibility. For example, the authors of the next generation of HTML do nothing to make the language itself more accessible. Web authoring tool vendors are very slow in implementing existing accessibility features. And although Web sites created to specification are more likely to be accessible, browser vendors try to make incorrectly written Web sites work as well as correctly written sites, taking away any incentive to follow specifications.

With each passing day a group of people are deprived of the right to choose their employment, have access to education, and participate in culture, because much of the Web is inaccessible to them. Many stakeholders in Web technology shirk any responsibility in their obligation to make the Web accessible and instead tell these people to wait for future solutions. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said: "a right delayed is a right denied".

Public comments

1. Posted by Gary Miller
on Monday 2010-01-25 at 23:10:20 PST

Hi Vlad,

Nice article. As web developers/designers we have a moral and ethical duty to make sites as accessible as humanly possible. As a society, we have the same duty to include those with a disability in our society.

They are, after all, human beings just like us with the same basic rights, aspirations and expectations.

Couple of points, if I may:

Quote: "People with disabilities are not able to participate in much that is offered on the Web."

Actually, I believe they can. Providing, as you say, sites are made accessible to them and whatever form of AT they happen to be using.

Quote: "So by skipping these steps... have made it easier for one group of people to use the Web at the expense of another group."

A false economy surely? By implementing the extra steps, sites would be easier to use for everybody - regardless of ability or disability.

I'm very fond of a saying that Ben Millard often quotes: "Build it once, build it right."

Sometimes, just sometimes, I think that those of us interested in making the web a more accessible place are 'banging our heads against a brick wall'.

2. Posted by Damian
on Wednesday 2010-01-27 at 14:11:21 PST

For those wanting a legal reference on this, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities clarifies rights from other conventions as they affect people living with disability. It makes specific mention of the internet and I recommend Article 21 (Freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information) in particular if you're just scanning:

Thanks for raising this important topic.

3. Posted by Simone
on Wednesday 2010-01-27 at 17:57:16 PST

One of the biggest problems is that web site development and maintenance is not completely in the realm of professionals. With a copy of Dreamweaver or FrontPage, or with the plethora of Content Management Systems around, people with no knowledge of HTML, let alone accessibility, regularly build or maintain websites.

Where an admin assistant has been lumped with the task of "looking after the company / department website" on top of their other day-to-day tasks, how much time are they going to invest in learning about making their site accessible? Chances are they don't even know HTML, let alone what else really goes into web development. It is usually these unskilled people who add to the problem, using "click here" for every link, underlining text when it is not a link, and adding pages to a site with no consideration of information architecture, usability etc. How likely are they to add an alt description to an image?

Until things like accessibility are deemed important by those that make the financial decisions regarding their website, we're unlikely to see much change in how accessible the average site is.

4. Posted by Vlad Alexander
on Wednesday 2010-01-27 at 18:19:00 PST

Simone wrote: "Until things like accessibility are deemed important by those that make the financial decisions..."

How should that be done?

5. Posted by Geoff Edwards
on Wednesday 2010-02-03 at 13:14:21 PST

I think that the general public do not have a right to have a website designed to enable them to access just any website. Government websites should obviously be designed to allow access of course.
But, there are many websites that have been produced by individuals at their own expense. They are on the Internet but until making a website accessible is incorporated into web editing programs I can't see why people should feel that they have a right to access these websites. I have even read that some of these accessibility systems do not even work in favour of the user but are themselves a problem. Unless the client is prepared to pay for making his website accessible I can't see that websites will be created to be accessible.

Even those people who are not disabled may be faced with using keyboards that have black key boards that are difficult to see in normal lighting. Browsers react in different ways. Up until last year my web pages were designed using tables for layout I was using Frontpage. I hope to come to grips with making my websites better but I don't want to produce dull websites.

6. Posted by Deaf User
on Thursday 2010-02-11 at 20:09:06 PST

You forgot to mention also that the increasing number of audio multimedia (videos, podcasts, webcasts) are inaccessible to hundreds millions of people with hearing loss and other disabilities as well as to non-disabled in restrictive environments or with restrictive technologies.

Text alternatives to audio are requred by W3C guidelines as well as the disability laws. So those with hearing loss have the equal rights to the full access of information on par with those who can hear.

7. Posted by Richard
on Thursday 2010-02-18 at 07:43:53 PST

Web accessibility isn't a human right, it is a human responsibility. In other words anyone who designs/develops a website has a responsibility to make it as accessible as reasonably possible.

Human rights are bandied about as though they are the answer to everything. The most basic one is the right to life. No sane person would really argue with that but the emphasis should be the other way round, i.e. rather than the right to life, the responsibility not to kill.

8. Posted by Vlad Alexander
on Thursday 2010-02-18 at 20:56:34 PST

Richard wrote "Web accessibility isn't a human right, it is a human responsibility. In other words anyone who designs/develops a website has a responsibility to make it as accessible as reasonably possible."

Responsibility is an obligation, involving accountability. Why are Web sites creators obligated to make Web sites accessible and what makes them accountable for their actions?

9. Posted by Ian Pouncey
on Friday 2010-02-19 at 12:54:53 PST

I've written my own thoughts on this, and expanded on the rights that Vlad talks about, at

Great article Vlad, it is an important conversation to have.

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